ST. PETERSBURG — As businessman Thomas Gregory watched Port-au-Prince crumble this week, he thought immediately of the Rev. Fred Lamar, his former professor at DePauw University, who organized mission trips to Third World countries, shocking students into the best experience of their lives.
For Gregory, images of the dazed and injured in Haiti brought back 30-year-old memories from his month in Port-au-Prince: "The smells amidst the squalor, seeing children in a sewage ditch. One boy had a toothbrush and was using this. I guess he had found it."
"I'm watching these video feeds, and I'm thinking, 'I've got to contact Fred, and tell him just how much those trips meant to me,' " said Gregory, 51, a health care consultant in St. Louis.
Rev. Lamar, the spark plug that drove more than 2,000 students to Panama, Haiti, Guatemala, the Philippines and numerous other countries, died the next day, Wednesday, of a rare skin cancer. He was 76 and lived in St. Petersburg.
He was a lean man with a quiet demeanor that belied two doctorates and a wealth of stories, once you got him going. The Birmingham, Ala., native graduated from the University of Alabama. The Army trained him in military intelligence and sent him to Eden Theological Seminary. He served as chaplain at the University of Missouri and led a Methodist congregation in Alabama, but ran into trouble after publishing a tract attacking the Ku Klux Klan.
"He was run out of Alabama by the KKK," said his wife, Martha, 75.
In the early 1970s, he won a Danforth Campus Ministry Fellowship and also became a chaplain and professor at DePauw University in Indiana. He launched his first mission trip there in 1976, taking students to aid the Houma Tribe in western Louisiana, whose town had been decimated by a hurricane.
His "Winter in Mission" trips took students to impoverished countries, bringing medicine, health training and construction teams. The program proved so popular, students slept in the rain in tents outside his office in 1978 for one of the limited spots. He took 72 students to Guatemala that year, plus a physician from the Mayo Clinic, two nurses and a dentist.
A typical day on that trip, he told the Saturday Evening Post in 1978, began this way: "Up at 5:30 a.m., breakfast at 6 a.m., a half-mile walk with a 30-pound backpack to the boat dock, a 16-mile ride across Lake Izabal in Mariscos Province, out of the dugout canoe for another mile hike with backpack into the jungle, set up a clinic in a church in a clearing, help pull yellow teeth out of ugly gums filled with pus and blood, pass out 20 rounds of worm pills to 50 kids who need them, work until dark, fall asleep on the floor of the village church, and then travel to another location for more of the same the next day."
Rev. Lamar remarried in 1986, after his first wife, Roberta, died of cancer the year before. He persuaded Martha to go to graduate school, and took her on two missions. In the Philippines, she slept in a hut made of sand and goat dung.
"My boss said, 'I knew you when your idea of roughing it was doing without room service,' " his wife said.
Rev. Lamar retired from DePauw in 1997 and moved to St. Petersburg a year later, where he and his wife sponsored students from Romania and Afghanistan.
Former DePauw students have contacted the Lamars in recent weeks, after word spread he was terminally ill. Among them was Scott Benhase, 52, who will later this month be consecrated the Episcopal bishop in the Diocese of Georgia. He remembers two funerals his first week in a Guatemalan village in 1977, both of children who had died of "dysentery and very preventable diseases," a stone's throw from corporate banana plantations that shipped produce to the United States and Europe.
"Here I was a 19-year-old kid who came from a middle-class background and never had to face that particular social dilemma and political problem," Benhase said. "Fred didn't beat me over the head with any of that. He just said, 'Okay, what do you think about that?'
"He held up a mirror, and made us look at it. That forever changed me and many of my fellow students."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]